Amanda Hutton Is Not Like Us

When Amanda Hutton, mother of little Hamzah Khan, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on charges of manslaughter and neglect, there was uproar in some quarters of the press and internet. The general consensus seemed to be that hanging would be too good for her. Here was a woman, a mother, who had allowed her own child to starve to death in the most appallingly squalid conditions while she drank herself to oblivion. If you followed the trial reports, other details emerged that were almost equally troubling. She was the mother of eight (how feckless) and had claimed child benefit after Hamzah’s death (a benefits cheat). True, there was the fact that the child’s father had beaten her up and actually been prosecuted for doing so, but what is that in the general scale of things? He had pleaded with the authorities to look after his child and they had failed to do so. The fact remains that Amanda Hutton was a selfish and cruel woman, an unnatural mother, who deserves to die for what she did. Or so the mob would say.

I must admit I am uneasy about the reaction to Amanda Hutton. It strikes me as being rather like the reaction to the Mick Philpot case or those convicted of paedophilia. It seems as though we all need to be able to say, ‘Bad as I am, I am not as bad as he/she is.’ We may want to say it, but I wonder whether it is true. I am never convinced by those who say they would be incapable of doing such and such a thing for the simple reason that I know myself to be capable of any enormity or sin. Law, custom, a sense of shame or even self-preservation may hold us back, but we none of us have perfect control over our thoughts and feelings. It takes only a sudden flare-up of anger, the presence of a weapon and the potential to harm another is there — even a well-aimed dishcloth can deliver a surprising sting, though the effects are not usually deadly. Add to the mix illness, addiction, financial pressure or what have you, and the potential to harm becomes greater still. In Amanda Hutton’s case, she has committed the ultimate sin of failing to live up to our ideas of motherhood and we damn her for her failure as much as for her crime.

Of course, most people don’t do such dreadful things as Amanda Hutton has been convicted of. Most mothers do not neglect their children or allow them to live in squalour. Most fathers do not expect the State to exercise the duty of care in place of themselves as Aftab Khan did. But in the midst of all the vicarious anger Hamzah Khan’s death has provoked, one important fact is in danger of being lost sight of. Unless or until we each of us understand that the greatest gift of all is life itself, we shall go on experiencing such tragedies because, in a way, we are all implicated. We each of us have a duty to help others, never more so than when they seem to be failing in some way. It was not only Amanda Hutton who stood in the dock but, in a sense, all twenty-first century Britain, with its plethora of laws and regulations designed to make life safer and and better for all. Ultimately, however, it is the personal that counts. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is one of the oldest questions in the world, and still one of the most difficult to answer.

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Wednesday of Holy Week 2013: Spy Wednesday

Today we read Matthew’s account of Judas’s betrayal (you can read the text in both Greek and English here). We sense the shiver down the spine of Jesus as he looked at his friend and knew him for what he was. If you read what some people say about about that moment, you could be forgiven for thinking Jesus was prohesying eternal punishment — ‘better for that man if he had never been born!’ — but I wonder whether that is true. Does it square with what we know of him in other circumstances, what we know of him from our own experience? Isn’t it more likely that when Jesus looked at Judas he saw the depths of despair and misery into which he would fall? My own, possibly heretical, reading of this gospel is that Jesus’ heart ached for Judas. He longed to spare him the suffering he knew would be his.

That presents us with a problem. God is infinitely just and does not condone sin; he is also infinitely merciful and forgives readily. So, is Judas eternally damned or among the redeemed? We do not know, and the fact that we do not know should give us pause. Sometimes Christians speak of Judas with a fury which tells us much more about them than it does about him. There is no place in Holy Week for that kind of vicarious anger. We do not need to look very deep into our own lives to see the sins that mar us. Today would be a good day for repenting of hasty judgements and hardness of heart, and allowing God to forgive us.

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